Looking Back on Tomorrow

If the century ahead turns out to have a theme, what will it be?

What are we going to do with our lives? I don't mean that question in any small, personal sense; whether or not you decide to retire early to open a bed-and-breakfast is of no interest to me. I mean it in the biggest sense. Which issues will dominate the twenty-first century? What debates and controversies will roil our children's lives? In other words, what will the twenty-first century be about?

If forced to sum up nineteenth-century America in one sentence, I'd say that it was about national union. The century opened with the Louisiana Purchase and continued with the acquisition and settling of the West. Then came efforts to link our vast space with networks of canals, railroads, towns, and telegraph wires. The Civil War was, of course, an all-out fight for political and cultural union. And the century ended with the consolidation of the national economy.

The twentieth century, in America and elsewhere, was about the size of government. The main debate was between those who wanted to preserve limited government and those who wanted a bigger and more active government, whether the latter were Progressives, New Deal liberals, democratic socialists, or totalitarians. Two of the great conflicts of the century, World War II and the Cold War, were fought against ideologies—fascism and communism, respectively—that held that the state should control economic and social life. In the United States election after election revolved around the question of small versus big government.

From the archives:

"A Triumph of Misinformation" (January 1995)
Most of what everyone "knows" about the demise of health-care reform is probably wrong—and, more important, so are the vague impressions people have of what was really in the Clinton plan. By James Fallows

It is hard to believe that the debate about the right size of government will dominate the coming century. Most nations have reached a rough consensus on the matter. In the United States federal expenditures now equal about one fifth of GDP, as they have for many years; there is no sign that that figure will change much anytime soon. In 1993 Hillary Clinton tried to expand the scope of government by offering an enormous proposal to reform health care, and in 1995 the speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, tried to shrink it. Both failed. Democrats and Republicans still attack each other on the issue, but their fight has become a sort of petty trench warfare on familiar terrain, marked by tired arguments and no significant movement one way or the other.

Which project or controversy, then, will define the coming century? Here are a few nominees:

Remaking human nature. We are experiencing a biotechnological revolution. In his book Life Script (2001), Nicholas Wade, a science reporter for The New York Times, predicts that the revolution will wash over us in three overlapping waves. First will come what has been called individualized medicine. Doctors will match drugs to our specific genotypes and will even introduce "regenerative medicine": instead of fixing diseased organs, they will grow and implant new ones. The second wave will bring breakthroughs in gene therapy as it applies to reproduction. Fertilized eggs will be treated in vitro with selected genes to increase the future person's height or intelligence, for example, or to prevent depression or other illnesses. The result of these advances will be a third wave: a radical increase in how long people live. Wade suggests that we may eventually regard 320 years as a normal life-span.

Breakthroughs of this sort would certainly reduce disease and suffering. But they would also raise many doubts, which can be boiled down to two questions: Is there more to life than maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain? Do we improve our bodies at the cost of our souls?

Critics of the drive toward such technologies argue that we take on a terrible burden when we try to redesign human nature and human beings. Parents who try to implant "improvements" in their prospective children, they contend, will be perverting parenthood. They will be assessing their children in consumerist terms, not regarding them as intrinsically holy creations (see "Jack or Jill?," by Margaret Talbot, March Atlantic). And parenthood will become despotism as parents refuse to accept limits on their control over another human life.

Regarding the third wave of Wade's revolution, would a radically longer life necessarily be a better life? "Teach us to number our days," the Psalmist says, "that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom." We seek to live according to God's word, the critics argue, precisely because we are aware that our time on earth is short.

The forces of science say that they are attempting to master nature in order to improve man's estate, in the spirit of the Baconian tradition. The forces of religion say that at some point the domination of the flesh becomes the death of the spirit.

Globalization. Before the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, most social scientists would have predicted that the economics and politics of globalization would dominate the twenty-first century. One of the classic texts in this debate is The End of the Nation-State (1995), by the French intellectual Jean-Marie Guéhenno. Guéhenno begins with the familiar argument that nations are too big to solve some problems and too small to solve others. However, he deepens the discussion when he writes that certain concepts associated with the nation-state, such as democracy, politics, and liberty, continue to define our horizons but no longer mean what they once did.

According to Guéhenno, power is now diffused to markets, multinational companies, and nongovernmental organizations. Geographic space has become less important. The world will soon consist of a number of overlapping networks, with a "universal empire" that contains them all (think of the interlocking rings of the Olympic symbol). No single power structure will be able to exercise all the dimensions of sovereignty, which will instead be fluid and open.

This basic idea has been fleshed out and endorsed or condemned in dozens of books. One left-wing critique is Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire (2000), which has attracted a cult following—in part, one suspects, because it is written in the obscure style that is taken in certain academic circles as a sign of oracular brilliance. Another book is Paul A. Cantor's Gilligan Unbound (2001). Using television shows of the past several decades, from Star Trek to The Simpsons, Cantor argues that globalization has washed away certain basic assumptions. People no longer assume that they live in a world of centrally directed nation-states, which may eventually converge into a single global authority. They no longer assume that politics reigns over commerce. Instead, authority is decentralized. The world is no longer a coherent place that we can shape; rather, the shadowy force of globalization exerts its will on us.

Should we fight to preserve our system of nation-states or embrace the post-national future? If we are no longer defined by our national identities, do we fall back on racial or religious identities, or do we invent new ones? And what about this notion of a global "empire"? Will such an empire be just? Or will it be a machine that runs by itself, crushing human beings in its gears?

Inequality. In the early 1990s a story floated around Russia about a Japanese steel executive who was invited to tour a Russian steel plant. The Russians took him around, showed him their machines and processes, and then asked him, "How far behind you are we? Are we five years behind, or ten?" The Japanese executive responded, "Forever. You are forever behind." He meant that the Russian plant was not only backward but also falling further behind every year, because its rate of progress was slower than that of those ahead of it.

From the archives:

"What Went Wrong?" (January 2002)
By all standards of the modern world—economic development, literacy, scientific achievement—Muslim civilization, once a mighty enterprise, has fallen low. Many in the Middle East blame a variety of outside forces. But underlying much of the Muslim world's travail may be a simple lack of freedom. By Bernard Lewis

A similar dynamic could prove to be a feature of the information age. The rich countries and people may not only maintain their lead but also increase it year after year, because they are better equipped to take advantage of fresh opportunities. This widening inequality occurs in both international and domestic realms. The European and Asian tiger nations could roar ahead of the rest of the world, leaving behind whole continents in poverty and disorder, which would inevitably lead to shame and rebellion among those left behind. The historian Bernard Lewis has argued persuasively, in these pages and elsewhere, that such a sense of failure has helped to fuel the anti-Western radicalism that has swept through the Muslim world and endangered our own.

Within many nations the gap between those in the top income decile and those in the bottom appears to be widening. This has been happening in the United States, Germany, Britain, and Japan, regardless of what sort of political party or philosophy holds sway. If widening inequality is inherent in the structure of the information-age economy, will nasty class warfare necessarily follow? Or will the people lagging behind, who will form a majority, eventually come up with their own economic system—some updated neo-Marxist vision, perhaps—to replace democratic capitalism and its perceived unfairness?

The American Century redux. On the other hand, why be so gloomy? Perhaps the United States will emerge from the war on terrorism more powerful and influential than before. Perhaps it will continue the task that occupied it for so much of the twentieth century: spreading the gospel of the Declaration of Independence—the idea that all human beings (and not just a few lucky ones in North America and Western Europe) are born with certain unalienable rights.

Perhaps over the coming decades democracy and freedom will take root in Africa, in the Middle East, in China. Already it is striking that many people in the former Soviet Union and the Arab world say they just want their countries to be "normal"—by which they mean contented, bourgeois nations, in which politics is a series of compromises, religious tolerance is the rule, and shopping is a prime leisure activity. They have internalized our Founders' vision.

From the archives:

"On the Playing Fields of Suburbia" (January 2002)
"America is perpetually on the brink of being corrupted by its own affluence—but only on the brink. We are less shallow than we appear." By David Brooks

"Looking the World in the Eye" (December 2001)
Samuel Huntington has been ridiculed and vilified, but in the decades ahead his view of the world will be the way it really looks. By Robert D. Kaplan

A survey of the social science of the past century shows it to be, by and large, an insanely pessimistic field. Intellectuals are always predicting decline. So perhaps it's time to try to compensate for our tendency to see problems instead of progress. To achieve a new American Century the United States would have to solve some of its problems—for example, how to preserve our distinctive identity even as our nation is demographically transformed; how to retain our character and sense of national mission in the face of mass affluence and commercial pressures; how to remain a dynamic economic power. American leaders will have to rebut dour standpatters, including the professor of government Samuel Huntington, who argues that civilizations are practically inviolable and that Western civilization should generally not try to project its image of right and wrong onto others' turf. But the task of championing democracy has never been easy. And it is not unrealistic to think that the United States will continue on the trajectory that it followed in the past two centuries, and that this will have positive, world-shaping effects.

There are, of course, many other issues that could dominate the coming years: global warming, the global spread of feminism, a worldwide religious revival, a militant secular revival, ethnic balkanization. But these four are my finalists. And I'm betting that issue No. 4—the American Century redux—will emerge at the top of the list.